Opening the Word: Divine providence

We live in a culture that proclaims with noisy repetition that “anything is possible” so long as we dream big, work hard and follow our passions. But this often rings hollow, for the rudeness of daily living reveals that not everything is possible, and that many dreams will not come true. Yet we, as Catholics, do believe in miracles and do have hope that certain things will come to fruition, despite all evidence to the contrary.

But how are we to understand what shall come about by the hand of God? The key is humble receptivity, an openness to the word and the will of God, and a spirit of gratitude. “In all created things,” said St. Teresa of Jesus, “discern the providence and wisdom of God, and in all things give him thanks.” Providence is often confused with blind destiny or that vague entity called “fate,” but it is neither blind nor vague. On the contrary, providence is, as Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, “particular and personal,” and it is “secretly concurring and cooperating with that system [of the visible world] which meets the eye.”

In other words, creation came into being by divine providence and is now guided by the same. The reading from Ezekiel is a case in point. The prophet had been taken into exile in Babylon, along with Jehoiachin, the king — “the topmost branch” of the cedar, Judah. Amid great turmoil, the question that vexed the people was, “Would Judah once again prosper?” (Ez 17:10). The external evidence screamed, “No!” but the word of God emphatically stated, “Yes!” Judah would be planted again “on a high, lofty mountain” and become “majestic” (Ez 17:22-23). God’s promises to his people would be fulfilled through his providential care: “As I, the Lord, have spoken, so will I do” (Ez 17:24).

Trust and faith are also essential, as St. Paul emphasized in his second letter to the struggling Christians in Corinth. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” he told them (2 Cor 5:7); they must be courageous and driven by a deep love and a proper fear of God: “Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:9-10). We can choose to please God or ourselves; we really do possess free will. But God’s plan will come to pass, even if we fail to say, “Thy will be done.”

The parable of the mustard seed is, fittingly, a tiny parable. But it contains a huge truth: “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” (Mk 4:31) becomes a great tree with “large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade” (Mk 4:32). The kingdom of God grows, even if we don’t always see the growth; the Church has roots that cannot be measured in natural terms. “The genetics of the Church as the Body of Christ totally befuddled those who measured greatness by size,” writes Father George Rutler in “Hints of Heaven” (Sophia Institute Press, $14.95), his book on the parables. “The little seedling did not seem to have much promise, and it seemed to die when it sprouted into a cross.”

As G.K. Chesterton noted in “The Everlasting Man,” the Church has apparently died several times throughout history — and then emerged alive and growing still. We would do well to contemplate the incredible natural odds facing the early Church and then marvel at the supernatural growth that followed, despite persecution, misunderstandings and hardships. Such is the way of God’s loving, personal providence!

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.